I was 25, and the only thing left to do before slinging my crammed backpack over my shoulder and trading my life in Barcelona for a trip around the world was to sort out my travel insurance.
There were a couple of options: €450 a year would cover the usual travel-related mishaps. €600 would extend to include family deaths and repatriation.
“I think I’ll go with the cheaper option,” I told the agent, joking, “I doubt anyone is going to die while I’m away.”
The agent raised an eyebrow. “Nunca se sabe – you never know,” he said, and he convinced me to book the plan that covered all eventualities.
Five months later, I’d made it as far as Argentina when my father died of an unexpected heart attack. He wasn’t ill, or old, and we’d spoken on the phone just a couple of days before.
“Are you planning on coming home before I die?” he’d asked – a joke that became a disturbing premonition in hindsight. “Of course I am,” I said, and laughed. After all, what 25-year-old expects an everyday phone call with her dad to be her last?
I don’t think anyone is prepared for the death of a parent. Ever. At any age. Parents aren’t people who are supposed to die, not before your own life is sorted. They’re definitely not supposed to die while you’re backpacking, or when you’re on Erasmus like my sister was. The death of a parent had always been a distant image for me – something that I wouldn’t have to confront for decades.
But then, as early and unwelcome as it was, the truth is that it was also a strange relief.
Our relationship was a tense one. My father drank, and he often couldn’t control his drinking. I remember standing by the window as a child, watching him leave for AA meetings and wiping his kisses from my cheeks in an anger I didn’t understand.
There were so many times I had furiously wished he would disappear, just die.
And when he did, I feared that all the rage I had accumulated against him had amassed into a mortal ball and killed him. Somewhere at the back of my mind I wondered if it was my fault, if it was me who had caused it.
I have good memories of my dad before my sister was born when I was nearly 5: pretending to be Santa with shaving cream on his beard, or sneaking biscuits with me behind my mum’s back. That was back when I looked up to him, before my parents separated and got back together several times, with my sister and I going between my mum’s native Barcelona and back to Cumbria throughout the process.
When he came back to live with us permanently when I was 15, I was expected to slot him back into the father role as if nothing had happened. I spent years resenting him and finally I left home at 18, moving from what I viewed as a dead-end place in the North West of England to Barcelona. I was desperate to get away from him. I thought that maybe when I left I’d suddenly be free, and I wouldn’t have to pretend we had a good father-daughter bond. When I came home from Barcelona for holidays and Christmas, I was distant and I avoided too much interaction with him. There were rare occasions when my attitude softened, but generally I was detached.
In short, we hardly connected on a deeper level while he was alive. It wasn’t until his death brought up memories, forgotten or completely unknown, that I started to realise that there was more to him than the absent figure of my childhood, or the boring lump I saw as a teenager. The more I heard about him, the more I would have liked to know.
There was the evidence of his kindness from the Church of England vicar who led his funeral service: a fond story about my dad helping him fix his house in the Scottish Borders.
There was his sense of curiosity that I never appreciated: When I moved to London and complained about the commutes to my mother, she commiserated with me. She told me that when my parents lived in London in the '70s, my dad devoured volume after volume of dense books on daily trips down the length of the Central line.
There was his sense of humour – a similarity between us that as a teenager I refused to admit. My dad constantly told silly jokes, and he was always turning everyday moments into comedy. I can still remember glancing over at him one quiet Sunday lunchtime to see his head hung over a tin of biscuits a friend had brought back from China. I rolled my eyes in teenage contempt and asked him what he was doing. He looked up and made strange noises back at me, as he followed the indecipherable Chinese characters on the tin with his index finger. “Well, I’m reading the tin, aren’t I?” he replied. Though at the time I pretended not to be amused, this memory still makes me chuckle. At a recent family gathering, my mischievous jokes and farcical facial expressions prompted comments of how much like “Our Peter” I was. This time I didn’t roll my eyes.
Once I started examining my own memories, and the things I was learning about him, it turned out that our similarities didn’t end with an appreciation for a good joke. One day, after his death, my mother casually mentioned how he always wanted to be outdoors. I thought back to the time he was unemployed and he’d spend hours outside with the dog. Even in the depths of the Cumbrian winter he’d be out there, bundled in his work high-vis jacket, puffing on a cigarette. He’d always wanted to be on the road travelling, my mother said. Once, he’d even suggested they live in the VW camper van they owned. Hearing that shook me; I’d never considered that my own insatiable wanderlust and constant need for fresh air had been passed down through the father who had once made me feel so stuck.
In the box room of the house I grew up in there was a large bookcase filled with my parents’ books. My favourites were the large photography books, which mostly covered Australia, a place my father had always considered a magical promised land and had wanted to emigrate to. I spent hours sitting on the floor looking at glossy spreads of the Great Barrier Reef and Uluru, wondering why he’d never been. It turned out he couldn’t; his short time in Borstal, a juvenile prison, had disqualified him from getting a visa.
Not long after his death, I booked a trip to Australia. While I snorkelled around the Great Barrier Reef, face to face with a turtle and overwhelmed by the harlequin colours around me, I had a realisation. My father lived with the regret of not being able to live in Australia, or even visit. While I was there I connected this place to my father’s lifelong unfulfilled dream and realised that what I had read as disinterest could have been a deep frustration with his circumstances.
On the day of his funeral, I was terrified we would find the crematorium chapel empty. I’d always thought he didn’t have any real friends – that anyone who came to call was just a workmate, or worse, a drinking buddy. Sure enough, as we walked behind the eco-friendly cardboard coffin (he always said he wanted to be buried in a cardboard box, so we honoured his request), I saw the chapel was only half full. I thought my fears had come true, until I looked into a side room and saw it full of people. In the end, the chapel was crowded with people who had appreciated my dad.
It serves no purpose now, but I wish I could sit down with him and find out what we had in common. While he was alive I wanted to distance myself from him; I denied that I was anything like him, other than the (I considered) unfortunate shape of our noses. It turns out we were more similar than I had ever thought. After his death I grieved for all the moments we could have shared if I had only known, or allowed myself to know, that the same things that drive me, drove him too.